Friday, September 28, 2012

Will Miss #491 - high interpersonal tolerance

Recently, I had an exchange with someone that revealed something I knew based on experience in Japan, but hadn't conceptualized in a concrete manner or verbalized. We all hear again and again that Japan is an intolerant society. The phrase, "the nail that sticks out gets hammered down," is known by most people with even a marginal interest in Japanese culture. However, during my time in Japan, I heard numerous stories of tolerance from keeping utterly inept, lazy, and inappropriate employees on the job to weird and troublesome relatives being accommodated in the home to keeping friends with idiosyncratic and highly annoying behavior. 

My experiences in America have crystallized my understanding of something and explained why so many Japanese people say Americans are "selfish". Americans are highly tolerant on a macro level. When they step out the door, they try to tolerate diversity among strangers and acquaintances, especially in terms of ethnicity. On a micro level, inside of their own homes, they are highly intolerant and will fuss and complain about small adjustments to the needs and behaviors of others based on their selfish and idiosyncratic concerns. The Japanese are the opposite, especially when it comes to family. When they step out the door and face the greater world, they are intolerant of differences, but inside of their homes, they will put up with and not complain about a much wider range of behaviors. They set aside their petty preferences in the interest of getting along. This sort of tolerance is rarely witnessed by foreigners because it is revealed through an intimacy to which few have access. To learn about it, you have to have a lot of experience and ask the right questions. 

I miss the high level of close interpersonal tolerance that I heard about and experienced in Japan.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Won't Miss #491 - weak medicine/fewer self-care options

A small crowd accumulating outside of Sun Drug, no doubt to purchase weak and ineffectual OTC medicine.

On many occasions, I spoke with students about over the counter (OTC) medication and my frustration with the impotence and high cost of it in Japan. They mentioned, quite rightfully so, that Japanese bodies are more petite than those of foreigners on average. However, it is also simply the case that stronger medicine in Japan is controlled more there. You need a doctor's prescription in most cases to get things which you can pick up without one in the U.S. Though this post has been sitting in my blog's buffer for over a year waiting for me to pick up the idea and write about it, a recent experience in the U.S. brought this home to some extent. My husband had a cap put on his tooth about 8 months ago (while still in Japan) which fell out late at night. We could hop in the car and go out to buy dental cement at a local Walgreen's and he could put the cap back on himself (at least temporarily). I can't say for sure, but my guess is that such things would not be possible in Japan as they believe only qualified professionals should be able to do such things. 

I won't miss the weaker medicine and the limited options for self-care in Japan because people in general feel that they can't be responsible for treating themselves for minor illnesses and issues. 

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Random Memories #9

The filter through which we interpret things changes as time goes by. One of the reasons that older folks tell us snot-nosed kids that we'll learn one day is that they remember when they were just as naive as we were and thought they knew it all and now realize they knew far less than they thought. One of the reasons that I lost patience with people who were newbies in Japan was that they resisted the notion that their perspective, while absolutely valid and understandable, was viewed through a filter with very limited capabilities to interpret their experiences. Of course, the only thing worse than a noob was a jaded vet. Clearly, no one can win with me. ;-)

When I look back on my old memory albums, I have a sense of almost missing how I interpreted the things I saw at that time. There is something appealing about being baffled, amused, or misunderstanding something based on ones naivete. Life related to Japan was more fun before I understood so many things. I guess that's why it is great to be a child much of the time and sometimes so depressing and mundane being an adult. Experience brings wisdom and knowledge, but it also takes away some of the magic, whimsy, and fun that come along with blissful ignorance.

One of the things that I did not know when I was first sent this flyer was that the reason it was called a "flesh basket" was because there is no way for Japanese people to determine whether a letter is an "l" or an "r" when reading from Japanese (katakana) to English. That's because the l/r sounds as we conceptualize them don't exist in Japanese. It's a somewhat different sound that falls a bit between them.Thinking of this as a basket designed to fill with skin was a lot funnier than knowing that it's a problem with translation. Of course, even calling it a "fresh basket" would be a bit goofy, but not nearly as strange as thinking the guy making the dress in "Silence of the Lambs" would have one of these around for his material gathering.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Will Miss #490 - the refined style

One thing that I didn't appreciate enough about Japan when I was there was how refined the style of much of what I was presented with was. This is, no doubt, because of the demands of Japanese consumers and a big reason why Japan has a reputation for taking something another country's people invented and making it better. I have been noticing with increasing frequency that things in the U.S. are generally just "uglier" than they are in Japan and thinks don't work quite as smoothly as they could in many cases. It's not that things aren't creative or purposefully designed, but they don't seem to be refined to a point where they have maximum aesthetic appeal and best functionality. You can look at or use such things and they are merely "okay", but there's a sense to them that something is not in perfect balance. In Japan, there seemed to be a much greater attempt made to find a balance, and I believe it was related to an amalgamation of personality and cultural characteristics relating to simplicity, meticulousness, minimalism, and attention to detail. I have the feeling that the Japanese worked hard to add or subtract as much as possible (and took the time to experiment) to get the presentation of things "right" in many (but certainly not all) cases.

I miss the sense that the style and function of many of the things around me had been highly refined to give the most pleasing presentation and best implementation, especially in the face of what I view as a rather high degree of ugliness and lack of sophistication in utility in things around me in America. 

Monday, September 24, 2012

Won't Miss #490 - cut out of the loop with no recourse

I've already mentioned that we had a pretty good landlord, but one thing I realized about him was that he did something that I experienced in other areas of my life in Japan (especially business). For the first 15 years of our time in the same apartment, he told us every little detail of work being done on the apartment building and surrounding area including when his wife would be sweeping up in the front and back areas. During those years, neither my husband nor I worked from home and we just said "okay." In my final 6 or 7 years, I was working from home and had actual concerns about noisy work. I expressed the fact that the noise was a problem or about the times at which work is done (because it can interfere with private teaching). After I did this, the landlord decided to stop telling us anything at all and simply scheduled loud and obtrusive work at his convenience. This is an example of a tendency (which I experienced many times) to tell you as long as no objection is expected, but to not tell you if an objection is even remotely possible. In other words, the idea that your opinion matters or that "harmony" is valued over expediting the interests of the person in power, which are commonly  held notions related to Japan being a culture based on consensus, is an act.*

The minute your interests have the potential to conflict with theirs, they simply cut you out of the loop and you have no recourse but to accept it because there is no law structuring how people are informed. I won't miss that.

*In America, these sorts of issues tend to be governed by law, so you are told what is mandated by legislation. There's no show being put on that your opinion matters or that your concerns are factored into what will be done, and you also have legal power to assert that you should be informed and have veto power when loud construction is going to be going on in the apartment above you starting at 6:30 am and going on all day. In Japan, such matters are left vague so that the power rests with the person who has the vast majority of it already.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Will Miss #489 - ETC

During a large part of my time in Japan, I worked both as a freelance private tutor and in a Japanese office. To get private students, I worked with a referral company called ETC (English Telephone Club). There are many untrustworthy employers who cheat or change conditions on foreign employees or referral agencies that you sign up with that end up being a complete waste of time, but ETC is neither of these. They always dealt with me honestly, paid me in a timely fashion, and communicated with me as well as possible. They connect people who want to teach in their homes with students who would like this sort of instruction and ETC provided me with relatively abundant numbers of students. I can say they also never asked me to give freebies as some companies do.

Before I left Japan, I was getting 15 students a week from them and it was harder than anything saying goodbye to those people who came to my home every week, sat down for a cup of coffee or tea, shared my private space for talk of their lives and worked toward their language learning goals. It was the most enriching teaching that I did in Japan. When I told the people at ETC's office that I was having a tumor removed, they offered to drive me to and from the hospital for my surgery. When I left Japan, they sent me a huge bouquet of flowers, and the people at the office had never even met me face to face! They were completely delightful and kind and dealing with them exemplified the best of the best in Japan. They were an example of the positive face of Japan that foreigners imagine.

I absolutely miss the lovely relationship I had with ETC and their patient, polite, courteous, gentle, and professional assistance in referring students to me.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Won't Miss #489 - "I have black eyes."

If his eyes look black, it's because I have a crap camera, not because they actually are.

One of the most common types of English lessons that I taught included asking students to describe themselves. This type of thing may seem a little silly in this day and age of digital phones with cameras and displays capable of showing pictures, but it is something that can come in handy if you're meeting someone for business and have to tell them what you look like or listen to a description of what they look like. Over the hundreds of times that I was conducting a lesson that required a student to tell me what he or she looked like, I probably heard them say, "I have black eyes," 95% of the time. I realize most Japanese people have quite dark brown eyes (irises), but no human has black eyes (except the pupil). I would explain this to students, along with the fact that saying your have a black eye means someone punched you in the face and your eyes are now surrounded with a bruise. Unfortunately, I was generally greeted with skepticism about the true color Japanese eyes. They were black, and my gaijin eyes couldn't possibly see this truth. They might patronize me by switching to dark brown, but if we repeated the exercise in the future, they'd say they had "black eyes" again.

Sometimes, I felt this insistence that Japanese eyes were black was another form of expressing the absolute uniqueness of the Japanese physiology and the skepticism I was greeted with when I said they were dark brown was about asserting a racial feature rather than a difference in color perception. I won't miss people insisting to me that they had "black eyes", particularly in light of how it sounded in English as if they'd been in a savage bar fight.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Random Memories #8

Three young women who posed appropriately for us outside of Budokan.

On April 21, 1988, I attended my first concert in Japan at Nippon Budokan hall. This show coincidentally occurred during a planned one-month vacation to “meet” my pen pal boyfriend (and current husband of 23 years) for the first time. I had been a KISS fan since around 1977, but my days as a “true” fan had ended with my graduation from college. I still liked them and remained a collector of interesting items, but the level of adoration and fanaticism I'd had had sharply fallen. Frankly, by this time, I'd become disillusioned and never would have let the concert dictate when I went to Japan. I was much more excited with and thrilled to finally be in person with this guy I'd fallen in love with at a distance than I was to be seeing KISS. To some extent, that is reflected in what you're about to read.

Though I wasn't the fan I once was, I did do some writing and artwork occasionally for a KISS fanzine or two. Yes, I was a "writer" even then. While going through old correspondence, I found a typed account that I wrote shortly after attending the show and I believe it was done for a fanzine (though I can't recall if it was ever published). The review reflects some truths and some ignorance about Japan, as well as my sense that KISS's shtick had grown rather wearisome in places. I'll be adding in notes from the present in parentheses in italics as commentary (like this) and placing certain things in context for those who weren't fans and can't know why something was mentioned. Anything not in italics is from 1988 when I knew about as much, likely far more, as a person would ever need to know about KISS, and very little about Japan. Little did I know what the future would hold for me in terms of Japan and gaining experience with the culture. As far as I knew at the time, this was all for the memory books and I had no plans to ever go back again.

For reference, for those who don't know KISS (and I'm sure there are plenty of them), KISS used to wear kabuki-style/clown-style make-up which they removed in the late 80's. References to “the old days” in any way refer to their days in make-up. There are 4 members in the band, two of whom are original (Gene, singer and bassist, and Paul, singer and guitarist) and two of whom were new (Eric, the drummer, and Bruce, the lead guitarist). The latter two were essentially hired hands and unequal partners in the group and are no longer with the band. Eric died due to complications from cancer and Bruce was dismissed around the time KISS put their make-up back on for “reunion” tours.

When I found this article, I felt as though I found a version of "me" that didn't exist anymore. That is, one that saw Japan completely through the eyes of a tourist and had no access to resources such as blogs or Wikipedia. It is an important reminder of how perspective is often ill-informed, even when you believe you are operating from a place of knowledge. I had been told for 9 months about life in Japan from my boyfriend and he was, in turn, informed by his brother who had lived there for around 5 years and knew even more. I wasn't a neophyte, but there were still things I got "wrong". It's this sort of thing that helps me keep perspective even now. There is always something you don't know or an experience you haven't had. There are always conclusions that you reach that are either wrong or subject to debate. This sort of thing helps keep me humble. 

A photocopy of our tickets for the show, printed on an old dot matrix printer, as was the style at the time.

KISS Concert Reflections (Budokan, April, 21, 1988)

I go to a new KISS show each year hoping to see certain things resurface and certain things disappear from the previous year. My opinion of what constitutes a great KISS show is no more golden than anyone's so please don't blast me for being happy about things that didn't show up at the Budokan Hall on April 21, 1988, but did show up in Pittsburgh, PA on January 16, 1988. (I'm comparing two different KISS shows that I had seen in close proximity as well as trying to mitigate the attacks I might get from fans who can't bear any negative talk about KISS.) I can't help but be happy that some of my dreams of what a KISS show might be were realized. It's too bad that I had to go to Tokyo to see it.

The atmosphere and the view outside the arena are rather appropriate places to begin. As fans scaled the hill from the subway (almost nobody drives to concerts in Japan... forget your post-concert traffic jam and replace it with a people jam) (I should have said “in Tokyo”, not “in Japan”) to the scenic gateway of the Budokan., they are greeted by bootleg vendors hawking everything but the much vaunted T-shirt (my guess now is that the bootleggers had “an (unofficial) understanding”, as is so often the case in Japan). Perhaps this is a wise decision on the bootleggers' part since it places them in a non-competitive position with official merchandise. Myriads of mylar photo stickers from 1977 to present, canvas tote bags, engraved necklaces and poor quality plastic key chains were among the items offered. Bootleggers are immediately followed by food vendors selling seafood omelets and corndogs to hungry concertgoers (since food and drink are not sold inside the concert halls in Japan) (little did I know that okonomiyaki stands were the norm nearly everywhere including outside of shrines and I didn't really comprehend that food and drink probably were not permitted to keep the hall clean).

Japanese fans poured out of the subway in excited seas of black hair (save the odd magnificently dyed red and blond long-haired men) with excitement rarely met by the, generally, more laid back U.S. crowds (This is likely because American concert goers span a range of people that include fanatics to those who just go to shows for the sake of drinking and getting high rather than are made up of pure “fans” of a band). However, I'd like to dispel the myth about about the mindset of the Japanese fan. A fellow U.S. fan once told me that fans in Japan “blew away” U.S. Fans in dedication, loyalty, and excitement level. This may be true, but let's not reach any conclusions hastily. To be realistic, you'd be pretty damn excited too if you hadn't seen your favorite band for 10 years and the majority of the material as well as half the band was new to you.

This guy was outside of a show I did not attend at the Tokyo Olympic Pool, not Budokan,  but it's a nice picture so I'm using it. Note the 80's faded denim, as was the style at the time. 

A fan in a plastic Gene Halloween mask met fans inside the entrance way to the Budokan on the first night at that venue and 3 girls showed up in make-up the second night, but there were otherwise no “throw-backs” to KISS's previous era. Girls in blue “Udo Enterprises” (the concert promoter) aprons beckoned to passing fans to purchase tour programs (devoid of photos of femme fatales) (the U.S. Tour programs included a lot of pictures of scantily clad women draped all over the band members but this tasteless display was omitted from the Japaense programs) and T-shirts. Oddly, fans could purchase such merchandise without even buying a ticket to the show since the booths were outside the arena. (In the U.S., we could only buy such merchandise inside of the concert venue at that time, I can't speak to how it is these days as I haven't gone to a concert in the U.S. for a long time.) Gene and Paul shirts featured excellent graphics and a lack of female companionship for the shirt's title characters (again, American shirts from this tour showed barely clothed women on them). Other shirts listed tour dates and headlined this leg of the tour. Prices were amazingly comparable to those in the U.S. (considering the cost of living there is one and a half times that here). Albums and compact discs were sold inside the arena with an accompanying promo poster and a display for the release of Chikara was set up to tease fans. (“Chikara” was the name of a Japan-only “greatest hits” compilation CD that KISS released. It was an awesome collectible and those who were able to buy one upon release got a cloth patch with the Japanese symbol for “power”, chikara, from some shops which is very hard to find nowadays.)

A concert hall is a concert hall, correct? Well... pretty much so. However, how many U.S. Concert halls have the American flag hanging in the center of them? I don't believe that too many do since concerts are festivals of rebellion rather than paeans of dedication to country. The Budokan Hall has the flag of Japan proudly and patronizingly hung high in the center just in case the fans forget where they are and decide to stand on their seats, grapple for stage souvenirs, or step into the aisles for any reason other than a momentary misstep. (This was an amazingly ethnocentric and ill-informed comment from me at that time. I did not know Nippon Budokan was no mere concert hall, but a national hall in which sporting events for traditional martial arts were often held. I operated based largely on the notion that rock bands performed there. My comment is a good illustration of how you can get things wrong from too little information/experience with a culture. I figured the end and beginning of understanding what Budokan was all about came from "Cheap Trick's at Budokan" album.) Don't get me wrong. The fans had tremendous fun. I had great fun. You just have to make sure that you have it in the floor space of your arranged seating. Floor seats are watched by a myriad of militant ushers while those with seats in the balcony couldn't locate a helpful usher to save their soul. Someone should have warned us that all of the seating instructions were in Japanese. (This is one of those “ugly American” things that we say because we feel entitled to have things served up to us in the manner that is convenient for us. It was absurd to expect it in English and I certainly shouldn't have expected to be accommodated just because it was an American band. Now, I know better and am more humble about such things, but then, well, that's where I was mentally.) The ever helpful fans eventually obliged us in finding our seats shortly before announcements (in Japanese) were made to the effect that the show would be canceled if even light-weight mayhem ensued. The lights went out and the high-pitched screams went on.

We now get to the parts I was happy to see absent. First, there was no opening act which I've generally regarded as a nuisance prior to the main event. What was obviously absent, however, was the presence of stories about trips to the doctor, Levi's 501 jeans, and how you never “lick it down.” (Those all refer to tedious sexual patter that were common in KISS shows throughout their career.) Pauls' dialogue was refreshingly clean and Gene left the “World's Greatest F**k” jacket somewhere else that evening. (I censored that, but the real jacket, which he wore in America, was not censored.) After years of this type of tour fare, I was pleased to see the repetitive banter absent. Not so happily missed was the pyrotechnics which were surely prohibited at the Budokan. (It was no shock that there were no indoor fireworks. I don't believe they would have been tolerated in an enclosed hall like Budokan.)

Gene and Paul tried a little Japanese language on their largely uncomprehending audience. It's not that they were speaking improperly so much as the Japanese people often fail to understand the most flawless enunciation of their words. (Some things don't change with perspective. This is still a “truth” about life in Japan for foreigners.) Nonetheless, their efforts were met with hearty applause and screams. Pauls' usual “how do you feel” query went largely ignored but the fans happily parroted him and sang along to all songs. (I'm surprised he bothered to ask or expect they'd understand.) When Paul hinted that “I Was Made for Lovin' You” (which they seemed too embarrassed to play there) would be the next song, everyone in the hall figured out what was to be played before me. Eric shined for his first performance to a Japanese audience and obligingly sang “Black Diamond” so they might sample his vocal abilities as U.S. Audiences once (happily) did. His name was chanted by the audience after his solo, illustrating that he'd won this new crowd over heart and soul.

KISS themselves seemed to make few concessions to the Japanese strictness except for when it came to guitar bashing at the end of the show. (There was a prolonged smashing of a pre-broken guitar in U.S. shows). Paul broke the guitar and threw the pieces into the barrier between the band and the audience for the ushers to safely carry away. This was apparently an effort to avoid fights in the audience over the concert keepsakes. Random guitar picks were also quickly scooped up lest an overzealous fan decide to scale the barricade and snatch one up. (This is such a Japanese thing – no mess and no chaos. Order at all costs. I wonder if all rock concerts are like this or they were just more cautious for KISS and in Budokan because they can have raucous shows and it's a culturally important place.)

The show was frustratingly short (about an hour and a half) for what was approximately a $40.00 ticket. (At the time, that was a lot of money.) Regardless, it was still incredible fun with near perfect official merchandise. A KISS is still a KISS whatever the country... this time, they just decided to keep their tongues in their mouths. (This was my way of saying that the band had to behave themselves in Japan, which they did.)

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Will Miss #488 - people (usually) sit at concerts

The tiny figure in white and black in front of the Budokan was my boyfriend at the time, now, husband. It's the only time I'll put his "face" on the blog. ;-)

I didn't go to many concerts in Japan, so my observations may be inaccurate (or outdated), but one of the things I did experience when I went to them was that people stayed in their seats. One of the things I hated when I went to concerts in the U.S. was that the second the show started, people stood up and that forced everyone else to do so as well. I don't know about you, but I am not a fan of spending two hours on my feet when I paid a fair bit of money for a seat. I realize that concerts are exciting experiences, and people may like to "dance", but the truth is that there is little room for people to move around anyway if they don't want to be bumping into the person next to them. In Japan, where the seats were even tinier and closer together, perhaps they knew that standing and jumping around for the duration was just going to put everyone out.

I will miss the fact that people tend to remain seated when they go to rock concerts. 

Monday, September 17, 2012

Won't Miss #488 - limited edition foreign imports

Strawberry corn flakes, probably there and gone, but thankfully so. ;-)

Sometime in early 2011, while still in Japan, I found a display of Celestial Seasonings specialty teas on offer at Queen's Isetan market in Koenji. I had never seen the flavors before (Chocolate Raspberry Bliss and Vanilla Strawberry Rose) and they cost about 400 yen ($4.43) a box. Since they were new and expensive, I bought one of each to try. By the time I discovered that I really loved one of them, they were no longer on offer. I can't tell you how many times my husband went overboard and bought up a ton of some import and had it go bad before he could eat it because he knew that it'd vanish and he'd never see it again. One time we found packages of South American strawberry bars which were similar to Fig Newtons and we bought up every one in sight (about 10 packages) and ended up tossing them out after a year because we just couldn't eat them fast enough.

It was very often the case that some import that I really loved was "here and gone" in a week (or less if it's snapped up by shoppers) and I don't miss having such a small window of opportunity to get some interesting item from a country other than Japan, but especially I won't miss the sort of mass-buying (followed by waste) we felt compelled to engage in when such items showed up.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Will Miss #487 - no clogs

I lived in the same apartment for 23 years in Tokyo and never once had to think about buying a plunger for the toilet. Maybe I was very lucky, but I also don't recall seeing plungers anywhere in office bathrooms that I worked at or visited. Perhaps the plungers were hidden or there was a magic pixie who lived in my septic system that made sure it was smooth sailing all the way, but for the duration of my time there, I never experienced a clogged toilet. Since coming back to the U.S., I've lived in three different places and each and every one has required the services of a plunger at least once. The odd thing is that the "worst" one in terms of frequency of clogs is a Toto toilet, the very same brand that I had in my Tokyo apartment. My guess is the issue is not the toilets, but rather the toilet paper that is sold in the U.S. I bought recycled paper that was cheap and 1-ply. Most of what you get in the U.S. is 2-ply and "quilted". Apparently, the few seconds of contact with your tender parts has to be well-padded here.

I miss the fact that the toilets I experienced, both Western- and Japanese-style in Japan never clogged.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Won't Miss #487 - wide stances

There are signs on Japanese trains telling people not to sit with their legs open wide because it is so common for men to sit as if it were imperative that they keep there knees as far apart from each other as a couple of angry, violence-prone weasels. My boss once expressed his frustration with these men by remarking that he'd love to ask them if their testicles were swollen. I am in no way exaggerating when I say that they are sitting to occupy the maximum amount of space possible on crowded trains. Japanese men seem to display this territorial body language much more often than men I've seen in America. Well, it's either the fact that they do it more often or I noticed it a lot more because in the context of the smaller, more densely packed areas of Tokyo, it seems far more inappropriate and selfish behavior.

I won't miss seeing these men who seem to believe they need to stake out a maximum amount of territory with their legs (or who suffer from some odd disorder in the cajones). 

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Random Memories #7

This beauty, so clean, fresh and lovely an appliance, was named the "Neo Queen", and was kept on a balcony that was favored by the more well-appointed cockroaches in Tokyo.

I have a lot of pictures of things which most people almost certainly do not have a picture of. For instance, I have a photo of the very first time I laid eyes on my husband, our first hug, and our first kiss. This was all due to the unique nature of our relationship, as my attentive readers may recall.

I also have a picture of many mundane things which people probably don't take photos of. Well, that's probably not true in the internet age when people blog about everything from how they cut their toenails to their first pair of jogging shorts. However, twenty-some years ago, people didn't take pictures of their new toenail clippers because they didn't have blogs to display them on and they didn't want to pay to have prints made to send to family about something so trivial.

In my case, since I was half of a long distance relationship and my boyfriend wanted to show me his new environment, I have pictures of a lot of the things which I used in Japan for the first time. I have a shot of the first rice cooker, first mini gas "stove", first tiny refrigerator, and first annoying as hell to use washing machine in Japan. Though not earth shattering in their importance, even at that time these things (well, not the rice cooker) represented inconvenience which was above and beyond what I experienced in the U.S. 

The picture on this post is the washing machine in my boyfriend's apartment. Some of you may recognize it if you grew up in a home that lacked an automatic washer. These deals required you to manually add water (cold in Japan, of course) to the left side which had a tiny plastic oscillator that handled an extremely tiny amount of clothes. Once you put in sufficient water, which took forever and you had to watch like a hawk lest you overfill and have to drain it off, you added laundry and let it roll anemically. After that, you drained it like the slowest tub in the world and proceeded to manually add the rinse water and go through the weak agitation again. Finally, you dragged the sopping wet clothes over the a tiny basket on the right which would never balance properly as you attempted to spin most of the water out of the clothes.

This blue machine was the first one I used in Japan in 1988, but I also got one of my very own a little over a year later when I returned there in 1989. At that time, these were still pretty normal, especially for apartments. Even though everyone was using automatic machines back home for years before this, such labor saving devices were not de regueur in Japan. I'm not certain why that should be the case, but I can speculate based on things I observed and my personal opinions about the way in which women are regarded.

I read blogs written by several women who are married to Japanese men, and have heard a certain comment firsthand which reveals the way in which housework is looked upon. At least 4 women in relationships with Japanese husbands have said that, at one time or another, they said that they "washed the clothes and hung them out to dry". For those who don't remember from some of my posts (and it'd be easy not to remember with 972 posts in the can at this point), most people do not use or have clothes dryers." When women state that they "washed the clothes", their husbands say something to the effect of, "the machine washed the clothes, not you." Of course, the wives are upset that their efforts are belittled in this way, but notion among at least some Japanese men is that women are spoiled by such labor-saving devices and that it's hardly work at all when the machines are doing things.

Housewives in general are held in higher esteem in Japan, which is a good thing. However, because they are home all of the time, their individual efforts aren't always seen as valuable and their time absolutely is not. Labor-saving devices like dishwashers and clothes dryers aren't popular because women are seen as having the time to spend on such work. My guess is these pathetic washing machines (which are still sold in Japan!) stayed in use far longer there than in other countries because the laundry duties could be labor-intensive since it was perceived that women had the time to mess about with them. 

There are other possibilities, of course. One is that they were cheaper to make and buy and Japanese folks just preferred the extra work and crummy results (clothes came out very dingy from those things) to spending a little more. Another may have to do with size or shape. However, we used less space with our small automatic (4.1 liter) machine than we did with the semi-manual machine. In fact, we used exactly the same laundry area with an enclosed plastic base for both types. Yet another is that they use less water. Still, few people use them now so something has changed and I think it is the fact that more women are working now than 20-some years ago. 

At any rate, finding the picture of this machine reminded me of a lot of hated and time-consuming laundry duty in my early days in Japan as well as vivid memories of the unbalanced spin basket. Is it any wonder that I stopped wearing jeans after going to Japan? They were absolutely impossible to handle in such machines. 

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Will Miss #486 - no leaf blowers

Oddly, leaves in Japan look much like those in any other country, though the drawing on the ground does have that simple look that Japanese drawing often has.

Perhaps I cannot say "no" leaf blowers as I lived mainly in Tokyo and traveled to various suburbs as well as tourist areas. There may indeed be small armies of people who get up every single day and loudly blow dust and errant dead flora around the streets in other parts of Japan. However, I can say that, in 23 years of living, traveling, and experiencing, I never once heard a leaf blower. I can also say that in the months since I've come home, I've heard them early and often. As someone who enjoys taking walks, there is nothing more irritating than strolling down the street and being overwhelming not only by noise, but by the dust and flotsam that is stirred up. Note that I am currently staying in a "nice" suburban area, not the countryside, in the U.S. Even if they stop their motors when you pass by, the dust does not settle until long after you've moved along. The vile operator of the blower is wearing a mask to protect his respiratory system. You're just going to have to hustle by and hold your breath.

I miss the fact that I never encountered leaf blowers in Tokyo, both because of the noise and the dust (especially the latter).

Monday, September 10, 2012

Won't Miss #486 - "it's their country"

One of the things Japanophiles like to say to you if you are mistreated in Japan is that "it is their country." Essentially, they are telling you that the Japanese have every right to treat you like crap if they like because it is their country, not yours. This attitude is puzzling because it is rarely (if ever) used to justify mistreatment or prejudice against minorities or immigrants in Western countries. If a Japanese person is denied a chance to rent an apartment in the U.S. because he is Japanese, people are not going to say, "it's their country and they can deny foreigners if they like." They're going to yell about prejudice. This phrase is second to, "if you don't like it, leave" as one of the most irritating things Japanophiles say to anyone who doesn't have unconditional positive regard for life in Japan.

I won't miss hearing "it's their country" as a justification for unfair treatment.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Will Miss #485 - lack of public aggression

Since coming to California, my husband and I have experienced either directly or indirectly two public fits of pique in the U.S. In one case, two grown men got into a shouting match over behavior on a miniature golf course. In the other, an angry pedestrian who didn't like the timing of how our car crossed the crosswalk he was approaching smashed his fist down on the back of our car. In each case, I found myself saying, "this wouldn't have happened in Tokyo."

Don't get me wrong. I did see two acts of public aggression in Tokyo while I was living there. In one case, in a particularly horrendous summer and while exiting a packed train, I saw two men who stumbled on each other as they exited. No doubt due to heat and crowding and the resulting frustration, they lashed out at each other. In the other case, I saw one man screaming at another over damage to his car in a small accident. Of course, I saw these two acts of public aggression over a span of 23 years, not in a mere 2 months.

I miss the fact that Japanese people tend not to act out aggressively in public over minor slights or misunderstandings because of a unique mixture of personality traits shaped by their cultural upbringing.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Won't Miss #485 - the comparative narrative

One thing that continues to annoy me to this day when I visit forums or news sites devoted to Japan is the way in which no issue or problem in Japan can be discussed without dragging other countries, well, actually, America, into the mix. No matter what you say about a problem in Japan, the counter-argument is that it's "worse" in America. Here is the thing, it does not matter what it is like in the U.S. when you are living in Japan and dealing with a problem in that country! It's not an international competition in penis sizes in which you have to be sure that Japan always comes out ahead because its social problems are comparatively not as bad as another country's. It's not about "bad", "worse", and "worst". It's about discussing an issue as it appears in a particular culture. When we talk about how the water has toxic levels of purifying chemicals in a city, the problem is not countered with, "at least it's not contaminated with sewage like it is in Bumblebone, Remote Island." The existence of a far worse situation elsewhere does not mean the problem at hand is to be dismissed.

People seem incapable of addressing an issue in Japan without trying to downplay it by comparing it to America. I don't miss this comparative that has to crop into every discussion of a problem in Japan.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Random Memories #6

My first experience with Japanese money did not come along when I arrived at Narita airport for a vacation in 1988. In fact, I didn't take any American cash to Japan for exchange because of the unique circumstances under which I went there. My boyfriend at that time (now husband) was paying off borrowed money for college to his parents and I sent them my $500 and he reserved the equivalent yen he would have sent them for me to spend when I got there. Keep in mind that that was a fair chunk of money in those days as compared to now.

This neat little arrangement meant that neither of us had to filter money through a bank and "lose" on the exchange rate as the banks will add a yen or two to the rate to get their cut. It also meant that my first exposure to Japanese cash came in the mail and in a manner which had nothing to do with currency that I could actually spend. The aforementioned boyfriend sent me many interesting things that he was given or discovered while staying there for a year on his own. One of those things was the cash that I have scanned in for this post. I didn't know at the time, but it is a 50-yen (64 cents) note. 

These were issued between 1942 and 1944 and feature the gate to Yasukuni Shrine. If that place doesn't mean anything to you, then check any news about controversial shrine visits by politicians. This is the place that angers China when Prime Ministers pay a call on it during the New Year's holidays. My best research, which means a quick check on the web and not nearly the "best" I can do, seems to indicate that these were withdrawn from circulation in the early 50's.

My husband can't recall where he got this, but his best guess is that a student gave it to him and then he passed it on to me. These days, people use 50-yen coins rather than paper money. I'm guessing that 50 yen was a lot more money in the years in which this was circulated. I'd also wager that this would be rejected as currency if one tried to use it these days. A bank might be required by law to take it in exchange for a more modern version. However, the frowning and brow-furrowing that would result, not to mention the time it'd take while supervisors all the way up the food chain were consulted to figure out what to do, would hardly be worth the 50 yen. 

In terms of collectibility, my best research, and this is somewhat better research than that I did for finding out when these bills were removed from circulation, says it is for all intents and purposes, worthless. There are a few versions of a 50-yen note from that time that are moderately valuable, but this is not one of them. Still, as someone who lived in Japan for 23 years and was thoroughly accustomed to what the modern cash looked like, this is a pretty nifty item to have in my collection.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Will Miss #484 - seasonal foods

Hot sake, which I always will associate with the New Year and winter in Japan.

In America, we have some things which are similar to seasonal food in Japan, though they tend to be tied to specific holidays rather than the calendar or weather. Marketers are also constantly trying to expand the timeline on everything. I recall, for instance, when marshmallow peeps were available only at Easter and only as, well, peeps and not other types of critters. In Japan, though you can get certain foods year-round, there are seasons for eating particular dishes regardless of availability because the culture throughout the centuries associates them with a particular time frame. There was something about these consistent patterns that added to the sense of the rhythm of life and made you take notice of the time passing. It is similar to the way eating pumpkin pie used to make people remember the warmth of family around Thanksgiving (or the fighting and screaming depending on your family) before pumpkin pie became a food to be consumed year round.

I miss the way the food matched the seasons with predictable regularity.

If you'd like to see some very brief idyllic commercials for season sweets, you can watch one for each here (at least at the time of this posting, the link is valid). 

Monday, September 3, 2012

Won't Miss #484 - a lack of spontaneity

The flip-side of the fact that the Japanese have a ritual or guideline for how things should be done is that there is often a lack of spontaneity in interactions. People do what they're supposed to in the manner in which they are expected to do it and deviation from form or expectations is seen as poor manners, or worse. This is reflected in things like traditional Japanese culture such as business card exchanges and tea ceremony. People are expected to follow precise movements in an exact order. There is no creativity or spontaneity because changing the way things are done is seen as failure to observe proper manners or form. This stifles individuality in favor of predictability.

I won't miss the lack of spontaneity that comes from having relatively rigid rituals and guidelines for social interactions.